Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in New Zealand and our skin cancer rates are the highest in the world. Melanoma accounts for almost 80% of all skin cancer deaths, it can spread rapidly and be life-threatening if left untreated.
New Zealanders are at higher risk because of:
- Higher UV levels – the earth is closer to the sun during our summer and we have relatively low air pollution levels
- Low ozone levels – the ozone layer absorbs some of the UVB light from the sun
- A high proportion of NZers have fair skin types that burn easily
- Our outdoor lifestyle
Your personal risk factors:
- Red or fair hair
- Blue, green or hazel eyes
- Fair skin or skin that burns easily
- Many moles or freckles
- Lots of time spent in the sun, especially when young
- Skin damage due to sunburn
- Sunbed use
- Smoking – smoking cigarettes doubles the risk of developing a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.
- A weakened immune system
- Family or personal history of skin cancer
- People from ethnic groups with darker skin are less likely to get skin cancer, but Maori and Pacific people often have thicker, more serious melanomas.
Anyone in New Zealand can get skin cancer. The good news is there are lots of simple things you can do to reduce your risk (experts believe that four out of five cases of skin cancer could be prevented) and it’s treatable if diagnosed early.
How to protect your yourself:
- Cover up when you’re out in the sun – wear a long-sleeved shirt
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat that shades your face, neck and ears
- Wear sunglasses (close fitting, wrap-around glasses that meet the Australian/New Zealand Standard AS/NZS1067)
- Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF30 or higher
- Apply sunscreen thickly to any exposed parts of your body 15 minutes before going outside. Re-apply sunscreen every two hours, especially after swimming or sport.
- Stay in the shade when UV radiation is highest – between 10 am and 4 pm during daylight saving.
- Don’t use a sunbed
- Check regularly for signs of skin cancer
How to check for skin cancer
You need to check your entire body, including skin not normally exposed to the sun. You’ll need:
- Comb or hair dryer
- Hand mirror
- Full-length mirror
- Chair or stool
- Good lighting
- 10 minutes
- Optional: a camera
- Optional: someone to check the hard to see places
Step 1: Face the full-length mirror and examine your face – including nose, lips, ears and eyes. Check your neck, shoulders and upper chest – including under your breasts.
Step 2: Using both mirrors, check behind your ears and neck. Use the comb or hair dryer to part your hair so you can check your scalp (or ask a family member for some help).
Step 3: Check the front and sides of your abdomen. Use the hand mirror to carefully check your back (this is the most commonly affected area in men), bottom and genitals.
Step 4: Check all sides of your arms and hands – including your fingernails, between your fingers and elbows. Lift your arms and check your underarms.
Step 5: Sitting down now, check each leg in turn (this is the most commonly affected area in women). Check all sides of your legs from ankle to thigh. Check your feet – including your toenails, between your toes and the soles of your feet.
Step 6: If anything seems to fit the ABCDE rule (below), if you have a sore that won’t heal, or if you’re unsure about anything you find, see your doctor.
Bonus marks: Changes usually happen over weeks or months. So you might also like to take photos so you’ll have a reference to check whether anything has changed.
Check your skin every three months (or monthly if you have a family history).
You can also get your skin checked by a professional – they usually recommend once a year or every two years, depending on your level of risk. However, it’s still a good idea to also do more regular checks at home to increase the chance of detecting a potential issue sooner.
What should I look for?
A – Asymmetry
Imagine a line down the middle of the spot. Is one-half different to the other?
B – Border
Does the spot have an irregular, scalloped or poorly defined edge?
C – Colour
Does the spot have a number of different colours in it?
D – Diameter
Melanomas are usually larger than 6mm when diagnosed, but they can be smaller. Is the spot growing?
E – Evolution
Does the spot look different to your other ones? Has it changed in size, shape or colour? Is it itchy, scaly, bleeding or won’t heal?
Other types of skin cancer to watch for:
Nodular melanoma is not common and is frequently not recognised. They are most often found on the head and neck and in older people, especially men.
Acral lentiginous melanomas is more common in darker skinned people.
If you see something, say something!
If you find anything that looks a bit dodgy you should see your GP straight away.
If your doctor thinks it looks suspicious, a biopsy will need to be done. You’ll be given a local anaesthetic so it can be removed and sent to a lab for testing.
The treatment varies depending on the results. The best outcome is that you’ve been overly cautious, but if a skin cancer is found at an early stage, the whole thing is often removed during the biopsy.
About half of all skin cancer is first found by the person themselves.
So stay vigilant, set yourself a calendar reminder and check your skin regularly!